As North Korea’s famine deepens, U.N. officials say food aid channels are being squeezed from two sides: old foe South Korea and old patron China.
The two countries are applying political pressure to use food relief as leverage to gain concessions from the secretive Communist nation. And donations from other countries are coming in at just a trickle.
“We are in danger of seeing mass starvation,” said Francis Mwanza, a spokesman for the United Nations’ Rome-based World Food Program, which predicts more than 500,000 North Koreans, including 55,000 children, are at risk of famine after summer floods wiped out farmlands and grain stocks.
Food shortages have become so acute that North Korea broke its isolationist tradition and appealed for international donations after the August flooding, called the worst in the region in 100 years. An estimated 1.5 million tons of grain were lost and about 500,000 people were left homeless, U.N. officials estimate.
So far, the World Food Program has received only $500,000 of its $8.8 million appeal for North Korea, spokesman Michael Ross said in New York on Wednesday. The bulk of the money came from Denmark and Finland. The United States has contributed nearly $250,000 to another group, the U.N. Children’s Fund, Ross said.
But the West has not been the only region to disappoint the U.N. aid agency: World Food Program officials had expected a generous response from South Korea and China because of their geopolitical interests in keeping North Korea stable. But no such outpouring has come.
South Korea has suggested world leaders offer food aid in exchange for possible concessions, such as information on North Korea’s nuclear policies, said U.N. sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
South Korea also withheld some promised rice donations in a wrangle over the release of sailors whose gunship was fired on and seized after straying into North Korean waters on May 30. Five sailors and the cremated remains of three crewmen were released Tuesday.
A statement from the South Korean Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said additional rice would not be given until the North makes “efforts to ease tensions on the peninsula,” the news agency Yonhap reported.
China, which once lavished North Korea with assistance, has been tight-fisted in the latest crisis. The U.N. sources say it may be leverage to try to force more economic liberalization in North Korea.
“The fall of the Soviet Union and policy changes in China have left North Korea out in the cold,” said Mwanza.
The World Food Program has been forced to scale back its office in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to one person. Without a surge of donations, the office will close operations in mid-January, Ross said.